By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008
In many ways, it should be the jewel in the crown, the perfect piece of land in the Southeast neighborhood that is being transformed by Washington's new ballpark.
The six-acre parcel that sits just south of Nationals Park is at the gateway to the city, stretching along the Anacostia River just off the Frederick Douglass Bridge.
These days, it may be just about the ugliest place you've ever seen.
The concrete plant that occupies the land is a thriving but not exactly attractive business that supplies many construction sites in the region. Dump trucks roll in and out, front-end loaders scoop up rock, and a dingy four-story tower churning out cement looms over it all. As if that weren't grungy enough, the land is littered with large chunks of concrete and pocked by blue-green pools of water.
Plans to open the riverfront to visitors and less obtrusive businesses have been in the works for nearly a decade. With Nationals Park open, it might finally happen. The company that owns the site -- Florida Rock Properties -- has proposed developing a four-building complex with a riverfront esplanade, stores, outdoor cafes, a hotel, offices and residences. All of it would overlook the Anacostia on one side and the new ballpark on the other.
"It's the last piece of the puzzle," said Claire Schaefer, marketing director for the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, which is promoting development around the ballpark. "It's really the entrance point for all the great things along the river."
For now it's more like the missing link -- a Neanderthal presence that Nationals executives try to ignore.
The family of developer Theodore Lerner, which owns the team, is a stickler for details in and outside the stadium -- from shades of paint to flower planting -- and grimace that the gritty industrial site sits at the end of the grand staircase that leads out of the ballpark toward the river. The Nationals even paid to put red scrim on the chain-link fence at the Florida Rock property to dress it up as best they could.
"It's a shame it's still there," Mark Lerner said as he led a ballpark tour just before last month's Opening Day. "But we'll just have to deal with it until it's gone."
Next month might bring a better idea of when that will happen.
The D.C. Zoning Commission is scheduled to vote May 22 on Florida Rock's proposal, which received preliminary approval in March. Even if all goes well for the developers in that vote, they said it will be two years before ground is broken for the new complex. Construction might not be completed until 2015, although the cement plant would be gone and the land spruced up well before then.
This season, there is little to draw fans from the ballpark to the riverfront, even though tying it all together was one of the main goals behind then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams's (D) decision to place the stadium in Southeast. The city agreed to spend more than $600 million on the ballpark project, and neighborhood development is supposed to be part of the payoff.
For now, the only access to the water near the ballpark is Diamond Teague Park. It's a small plot that sits just east of Florida Rock's land and is maintained by the Earth Conservation Corps, an organization that works with disadvantaged youth in the District.
The park has fresh shrubbery and colorful flowers and a walking path that stretches to the riverbank. But it also wraps around the parking lot for the nearby D.C. Water and Sewer Authority facility.
Florida Rock, a development company based in Sparks, Md., first considered developing its land about a decade ago when the U.S. Department of Transportation began looking for a new location for its headquarters. The riverfront land was in the running but lost out to the parcel on M Street where the headquarters, designed by noted architect Michael Graves, now stretches for two blocks.
Florida Rock's developers have overhauled their plans for the property several times over the years to accommodate zoning needs. But the ballpark's placement in Southeast along South Capitol Street jump-started their quest to move ahead.
"It was a matter of time for that area to be developed. This sped it up dramatically," said David deVilliers, Florida Rock's president. Each of the Nationals' 81 home games is a marketing opportunity for the area and the Florida Rock project.
The company hired Washington architect and planner Davis Buckley, known for renovations at the Watergate Hotel and the National Japanese American Memorial. Buckley said he is excited about designing the new complex to complement Nationals Park and to open up the riverfront.
"Washington is a waterfront city," Buckley said. This project would allow fans to be on the river before and after games, in addition to offering shopping and restaurants for the workers and new residents expected over time, he said.
The neighborhood already is undergoing $6.1 billion worth of construction, and planners estimate there eventually will be 12 million square feet of office space, 9,000 residential units, 1,200 hotel rooms and 800,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Few will have a better location than the Florida Rock property.
Buckley envisions a plaza on the east side, right in the path of fans using the ballpark's grand staircase. He calls it a "civic space." It will have three pavilions and places for outdoor vendors and cafes.
The architect plays off the curved bowl of the ballpark in his design of the four buildings planned for the land. He does not rely on simple, linear buildings; instead, each one has sweeping curves or deep angles.
"We're created a unique, distinctive look," Buckley said. "It's going to take a few years to get there, but we're going to get there."